Indie-Rock Success So Sudden, It Actually Hurts
Sunday, October 11, 2009
Ask Nathan Williams about his big break and he might tell you about the recent skateboarding accident that put his wrist in a cast for the next seven months. He certainly won't tell you about a big break for his band Wavves. There was no such thing. Success -- or the illusion of it -- came instantly. "My first show was in front of 700 people in San Francisco," Williams says.
Over the past 11 months Williams has generated a level of attention unique to today's mediascape: An all-at-once, big-bang kind of success that took Wavves from his San Diego bedroom into the greater indie-rock consciousness. But after that breakneck ascent, Williams is suffering a backlash that feels just as unique. Under a crush of attention -- good, bad and sometimes really ugly -- Wavves' trajectory poses the question: Will the hair-trigger pace of the blogosphere extinguish our most promising artists before they have the chance to find their voice?
Backstage at Washington's Rock & Roll Hotel, where Wavves performed earlier this month, Williams describes 2009 as "really stressful." The 23-year-old singer-guitarist stares off into space -- his gaze somewhere between freaked-out and burned-out. "I mean, I'm just some [expletive] kid," Williams says. "When I thought about playing music I never thought about any of this."
Since forming last year, Wavves has released two albums of lo-fi punk tunes, where sunny melodies are buried in a smog of distortion. After bursting onto the blogscape late last year, the band has earned hosannahs from the New York Times ("scrappy, energetic"), the Los Angeles Times ("raw, jittery,"), Rolling Stone (three stars) and Spin magazine (four).
The accolades come with a stunning asterisk: Wavves has existed for less than a year.
Noshing on soggy pita chips and nursing a Tecate, Williams looks back on the past 11 months as a do-or-die sprint with all eyes on him. "There was no time for me to suck in basements," he says. "I didn't have that."
Scott Plagenhoef, editor in chief of Pitchfork, sees it as a trend. "Bands don't get to incubate and work out a lot of things," he says over the phone from Chicago. "Particularly if they get a lot of attention."
Oddly enough, most of the hype surrounding Wavves originated with Pitchfork, the dominant indie-rock Web site whose blessing can help sell thousands of records -- and whose dismissals can send young hopefuls into indie oblivion. In March, Pitchfork awarded Wavves' second album with its "Best New Music" tag and invited the band to play a show it was curating at Spain's Primavera music festival in May. Once Williams stepped on that Barcelona stage, everything changed.
"It was one of those things where I was completely overwhelmed, basically, by the whole situation," says Williams. "And somewhere in the back of my head I probably was thinking, I can get out of this, at least for a short period of time."
Onstage, Williams seemed disoriented. He couldn't play his songs. And when he wasn't bickering with drummer Ryan Ulsh, he was dodging bottles and shoes from angry fans. He later apologized for the blowup on his blog, writing, "Mixing ecstasy valium and xanax before having to play in front of thousands of people was one of the more poor decisions I've made (duh)."
Pitchfork responded the next morning with a headline that would echo across the Internet: "Wavves Self-Destruct in Barcelona." Indie sites Brooklyn Vegan and Stereogum pounced on the story, and their reader comment sections quickly turned rancid.
"happy it didnt take longer for everyone to realize this band sucks," said one commenter on Brooklyn Vegan.